Quba Islamic Institute Fire Probe Arson Possibility

(Adds comments from center about arson and harassment, fire official, and reaction comment from student)

By Camilo Smith

HOUSTON, Feb 13 (Reuters) - Arson investigators from the Houston Fire Department are probing a blaze that destroyed a building at an Islamic institute in the city on Friday, officials said.

There has been no official determination yet of what caused the fire at the Quba Islamic Institute in the pre-dawn hours of Friday, fire officials said, adding no one was injured.

The fire destroyed one of three buildings at the center, which remains fully operational.

In a video on the institute's Facebook page, Ahsan Zahid, son of the imam, said fire officials told him the fire appeared intentional.

Zahid urged the Islamic community and supporters not to assign blame until the investigation concluded.

A Houston fire official told Reuters on Friday evening that it could be several days before the investigation would be concluded. He said investigators are not confirming arson was the cause of the blaze.

The Texas office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations called for authorities to investigate a possible bias motive for the fire that the group sees as an apparent arson attack.

In an interview with KTRK-TV in Houston, Zahid said a smashed table that appeared to be vandalism was found on the property Friday morning.

He also told the station that someone had driven by the institute Thursday evening, yelling "mocking chants," the station reported.

Earlier in the week, an unknown masked man had to be chased off the property, according to the TV report.

The Houston fire comes days after a gunman shot dead three young Muslims near the University of North Carolina, riling Muslim activists who have demanded that U.S. state and federal authorities investigate the detained suspect for possible hate crimes.

Javid Sultan, the president at the University of Houston's Muslim Student Association said students on campus were stunned to hear about the fire at the Islamic center.

"We're trying to be more proactive because you never know when something like this happens," he said. "It's getting pretty scary, and very close to home, being harassed based on our faith." (Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin and Camilo Smith in Houston; Editing by Eric Beech & Kim Coghill)

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